“National Importance”

June 14, 1879

Thomas Nast

“National Importance”

Presidential Election 1880; Symbols, Rag Baby; U.S. Economic Policy, Money Question;

Sherman, John; Thurman, Allen;


Thurman's fence is all right, but he is in suspense about both nominations

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast features Senator Allen Thurman of Ohio desperately grasping for the illusive presidential nominations of the Democratic and Greenback Parties.

Allen Thurman was born in Virginia in 1813, but moved with his family to Ohio two years later.  In 1835, he was admitted to the Ohio bar and became the law partner of his uncle, William Allen, who soon entered the U.S. Senate.  In 1844, Thurman was himself elected to Congress, entering the House of Representatives as its youngest member. As a Democrat, he upheld the party's positions on tariff and territorial expansion, supporting Democratic president James K. Polk's declaration of war against Mexico.  Thurman sided with the Whigs, however, in support of government-funded internal improvements. 

Thurman decided not to run for reelection in 1846, and returned to his private law practice. In 1851, he was appointed to the state supreme court and served for five years, one as chief justice, before returning to his law practice. During the Civil War, Thurman supported the war effort, while encouraging political compromise and a peaceful settlement.  He joined other Northern Democrats in criticizing Lincoln administration policies, especially emancipation and violations of civil liberties. 

In 1867, Thurman ran for governor of Ohio, but lost narrowly to Rutherford B. Hayes. The next year, however, the Democratic state legislature elected Thurman to the U.S. Senate, where he was a strong voice against the Reconstruction policies of the Republican Party. In 1874, he was reelected to a second term in the Senate.  When the 1876 presidential election produced an Electoral College crisis, Thurman helped forge the solution of creating a special commission to resolve the controversy and served as one of its members.  During the 46th Congress (1879-1881), he served as Senate president pro tem.  

Throughout most of his public career, Thurman had taken a "hard-money" stance in favor of the gold standard.  In the late 1870s, he suddenly switched to supporting the "soft-money" position of printing paper money ("greenbacks") in order to spur inflation and alleviate the debt burden of families and individuals.  Critics like Harper's Weekly believed his political turnabout was part of a calculated effort to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1880.  Thurman had been a favorite-son candidate of the Ohio delegation in 1876 and hoped to enhance his chances at the upcoming national convention.  

Ohio's political party conventions in 1879 (referred to in the cartoon) generated much attention and speculation by the national press.  The state conventions' primary task was to nominate gubernatorial candidates, and political watchers wondered whether the Democrats would select Thurman and the Republicans choose Treasury Secretary John Sherman, with the ultimate winner able to use the office as a stepping-stone to a presidential nomination the next year.  

On the left of this cartoon, a placard reports Sherman's statement, which fooled no one, that he is only in Ohio to repair fences on his farm.  The cartoonist uses the notion as a visual metaphor for Thurman caught on a fence because of his monetary views and unable to accept the 1880 presidential nominations of either the Democratic Party (depicted as a bourbon bottle) or the Greenback Party (drawn as the rag baby, symbol of inflationary paper money).  The "Ohio Idea" also alludes to an inflationary monetary policy.  In 1879, both Thurman and Sherman finally decided against seeking their party's gubernatorial nomination, fearing that a loss in the closely contested state would impair their presidential candidacies.  

The next year, as expected, both men entered the presidential sweepstakes.  After winning the popular vote in 1876, only to lose the presidency by vote of the Electoral Commission, Democrats thought they had an excellent chance to retake the White House in 1880 for the first time since before the Civil War.  Ill health forced Samuel Tilden, the 1876 nominee, to drop out of contention.  Thurman was loyally backed by the Ohio delegation, but failed to pick up significant support outside his home state.  On the second ballot, the Democratic National Convention chose General Winfield Hancock as its standard-bearer over Senator Thomas Bayard of Delaware and Congressman Samuel Randall of Pennsylvania.  

Sherman fared better at the Republican convention, but the deadlocked delegates turned to his campaign manager, Congressman James Garfield, instead.  The Greenback-Labor Party nominated General James Weaver of Iowa.  In 1881, the Ohio legislature, now in the hands of Republicans, elected Sherman to the U.S. Senate seat, defeating Thurman's bid for a third term.  In 1888, President Grover Cleveland named the aging Thurman as his vice-presidential running mate, but the ticket lost in the general election. 

For more information on the 1880 election, visit HarpWeek’s Presidential Elections website

Robert C. Kennedy

“National Importance”
November 28, 2023

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